Settlement Creep

At first glance, it seemed like good news: In January, Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz froze plans for a new settlement in the West Bank, partly in response to U.S. objections. Just a few weeks before, Peretz had given the go-ahead for the establishment of Maskiot, the first new settlement to win Israeli government approval in more than a decade. It was intended for 30 Israeli families evacuated from the Gaza Strip in August 2005, and it was to be built in the barren hills above the Jordan River. Announcement of the plan brought a sharp protest from Washington.

"The U.S. calls on Israel to meet its road-map obligations and avoid taking steps that could be viewed as predetermining the outcome of final-status negotiations," a State Department spokesman said, referring to George W. Bush's 2003 "road map" for peace, which required Israel to stop settlement growth.

Reports credited U.S. opposition as a key reason for the proposal's demise. Skimming news Web sites, you might construct this encouraging picture: Israel decided to renew settlement expansion; the move was testimony to how countries can continue with failed policies, since Israel's leaders have acknowledged that national interests require giving up West Bank land and allowing a Palestinian state; fortunately, the Bush administration forthrightly voiced America's disapproval; diplomatic pressure worked. Let's celebrate.

Please don't. The Maskiot affair amounted to slapping a mosquito while ignoring a mammoth. Official Israeli approval of a new settlement was an isolated incident, mainly symbolic in impact. By every actual measure, the Israeli settlement enterprise in the West Bank keeps growing. Driven by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and Ariel Sharon before him, the settlement bulldozer has consistently ignored the American road map.

Israel's settler population grew by nearly 6 percent in 2006, to a total of more than 268,000, as existing settlements continued to expand. Meanwhile, the government called for bids last year for more than 950 new apartments in established settlements. This January, the Israeli housing ministry asked for bids to build another 44 homes in Ma'alah Adumim, the largest settlement.

While the government stopped approving new settlements in the wake of the 1993 Oslo Accords, settlers have since established more than 100 "outposts" -- hilltop clumps of mobile homes -- with bureaucrats either helping or looking the other way. Following the road map, Israel was supposed to evacuate some outposts. Peretz, leader of the center-left Labor Party, has promised to remove outposts since becoming defense minister last year. But he has lacked the will, or the backing from Olmert, to do so. On the hilltops, permanent houses are replacing the mobile homes.

Olmert's public position is that to maintain a Jewish majority, Israel must give up most of the West Bank. Nonetheless, he promises to hold on to the largest settlements, and he continues building there. His policy defies his own logic. But cold analysis isn't enough to stop the momentum of historical habits.

The sole excuse for U.S. ineptitude is that it is an old habit, too. Since the Six Day War, successive U.S. administrations have favored a full Israeli-Arab peace based more or less on the pre-1967 borders. Since 1967, Washington has objected to settlement -- but softly, without exerting leverage. The post-1967 paper trail in U.S. archives shows American diplomats endlessly finessing the language of successive peace initiatives, while Israeli governments wrote their real policy in roads and houses in occupied territory.

Still, George W. Bush's failure on the settlement issue manages to create nostalgia for his father. George Bush Senior was the exceptional president who exerted strong U.S. pressure by conditioning American loan guarantees to Israel on a settlement freeze. He showed Israelis that settlement was costly, thus helped elect Yitzhak Rabin prime minister, and thereby contributed to the start of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

As well, the current President Bush's inaction on settlements illustrates the chasm between his words and deeds. The road map places a clear U.S. requirement on Israel, barring any new settlement construction. It also postulates creation of a Palestinian state at peace with Israel -- by the end of 2005.

But Bush has devoted little diplomatic effort to realizing his own policy. On the ground, to the detriment of U.S. and Israeli interests, the settlements keep growing. The U.S. "success" at stopping Maskiot only shows how much more could be done if the will were there. It's no cause for celebration.

Gershom Gorenberg, a Prospect senior correspondent, is the author of The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967–1977.

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